How many businessmen, tuning up for a major presentation with a 15-minute session of Transcendental Meditation, realize that they owe the trick chiefly to Timothy Leary, a man who was once described by President Richard Nixon as "the most dangerous man in America"?

How many housewives, sitting cross-legged on yoga mats, chanting and then chatting over green tea about Buddhist ideas of reincarnation understand that they derive these benefits from Allen Ginsberg, a freak poet who was officially denounced as "a moral menace"?

Joanna Harcourt-Smith does share these perceptions, having occupied a pivotal position in the epoch from which they originate. As unofficial wife, long-term companion and supporter of Leary, she says, "I admire him for insisting that people should have the right to change their consciousness and shift out of the narrow frame of mind prescribed by the state." Of Ginsberg, she delivers crisper memories: "He was not a loyal enough friend nor close enough supporter when Timothy was in prison and in need."

Leary, the archbishop of the LSD movement of the 1960s, and Ginsberg, the Beat poet who did more than any individual to put hippy flowers in the hair of San Francisco, are universally understood to have exerted a shaping influence on their own time. What may not be so readily recognized is how broadly the effects of their thinking and activism continue into our own day.

Still less do we understand how these two entwined to complement and sustain each other. As their fascinating letters to be sold at Bonhams San Francisco reveal, they effectively embarked on a joint mission to "turn on America". Amazingly, they largely succeeded.

In their earlier years in post-war America, one had become a Harvard lecturer, widely respected in his field of psychological scholarship. The other grew up a troubled Jewish boy with a learned taste for poesy and a (then illegal) taste for men. Both flung themselves off the rails of conformity as the Eisenhower years of puritanism turned into the jamboree of the 1960s. And Leary and Ginsberg took the rest of America – then the rest of the developed world – with them on their own trip.

In the 1950s, Leary was on the career path of a conventional academic. He described himself as "an anonymous institutional employee who drove to work each morning in a long line of commuter cars and drove home each night and drank martinis ... like several million middle-class, liberal, intellectual robots". Then, in 1960, just weeks before John Kennedy was elected President, he traveled to Mexico, swallowed a dose of the mind-altering compound psilocybin in the form of a magic mushroom – and met his destiny, if not his maker.

Along with his Harvard colleague Richard Alpert (who later took the name of Baba Ram Dass and penned some of the most impenetrable prose of that age in Be Here Now), Leary embarked on research into the psychological effects of hallucinogens, including the newly synthesized LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), which was then legal. Experimenting with prisoners, some of whom received placebos, and some doses of LSD, Leary and Alpert observed that the ones who took LSD soon started babbling about God while the others looked on in sober bewilderment.

Leary ensured news of the Harvard Psilocybin Project reached mainstream media, where it soon caught Ginsberg's eye. Seeing a possible short cut to the higher state of being he had sought throughout the 1950s, Ginsberg contacted Leary, offering to sign up for his experiments. Leary's motto "Tune in, turn on, drop out" was perfectly attuned to Ginsberg's outlook. Since his student days, Ginsberg had explored ecstatic visions and hallucinations (especially when reading William Blake) and he'd used these experiences to feed his own compositions such as Howl. Now he saw Leary's experiments with LSD as a means to jolt the collective US mind out of its materialistic fixations and aggressive militarism and into an age of love, peace and uninhibited sex.

At first, the pair's LSD proselytizing was largely confined to East Coast intellectuals but, after Ginsberg met Bob Dylan then The Beatles in the mid-1960s and turned them on to LSD, those young idols were able to spread the gospel through music to an entire generation.
Leary and Ginsberg were originally motivated by high moral intentions, as the letters make clear. The revelatory state of mind they wanted America to discover was one of religious devotion even while it was post-Christian. Leary's Catholic upbringing infused his LSD proselytizing as much as Ginsberg's Jewishness was the springboard for his dive into eastern religions. Both went as far out as the 20th-century mind could travel, so it was logical that Leary should occupy the end of his life speculating about humans colonizing space.

Many of the letters were written to and from prisons. After LSD was ruled to be illegal in 1966, Leary spent 10 years more or less continuously under arrest, in court, in prison or on the run. During this period, one of his chief tormentors was a young assistant district attorney, G. Gordon Liddy (later, at Nixon's behest, the leader of the Watergate plumbers who conspired against democracy in the US). In their later lives, Leary and Liddy put on a rewarding road show together.

Harcourt-Smith now takes a different attitude towards her former lover and mentor: "Timothy Leary was unquestionably a genius but, like many geniuses, on a human level he was not
a great person at all."

Harry Fischer, an expert on the social history of the 1960s, lives in San Francisco.

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